Looking Back On 2022: The Best, The Befuddling, And The Bungled

January 2023

January 2022 dawned sunny and bright, with me salting margaritas down in the Everglades instead of sidewalks in Colorado and, better yet, wrestling snook instead of shoveling snow!  Covid was finally in the rearview mirror for the most part and promises for a bountiful piscatorial year are looking good.  So how did it turn out?  Here’s a look back at the best of 2022 and some bungled episodes as well.

It’s hard to believe that I hadn’t fished in the Everglades–or anywhere in Florida for that matter like the Keys—in the winter for almost two years!  Despite that hiatus and fewer articles about fishing in the Sunshine State  being posted in 2022, I was grateful my readers stuck with me and that the number of visitors and views stayed steady at the peak levels established in 2020.  Many thanks!

Fishing Buddies And Family

As I age (slowly and gracefully), the connections angling brings with fishing buddies and family become ever more important and treasured.  I had some fun and productive outings in Florida with Jim Cannon (former owner of the renowned Blue Quill Anglers in Colorado), my Colorado neighbor Charlie Cain, Esq., Steve Keeble, Robert Wayne, Esq. (who lives in Naples, FL), and my old college roomie Morris Douglas Martin. 

We had a lot of laughs together while we boated a lot of fish, and better yet, I learned some new tricks and tips from them. You ought to see Cannon and Keeble fly cast from a kayak—impressive! In Colorado during the summer the fish parade continued with good friends Bob Wayne and Steve Spanger as we chased trout in the Colorado wilds. I also enjoyed fishing with new friends Tom Palka, who writes the newsletter for our local Trout Unlimited Chapter, and Kim LeTourneau, an accomplished guide for my local fly shop Ark Anglers who also covers fishing for the Mountain Mail newspaper.

Whether in Florida or in the Rockies, they all had the chutzpah to outfish me!!

In March my son Matthew came down for a week to soak some rays and relax.  The day we spent in the Everglades backcountry together warmed this father’s heart.  It was a smorgasbord of feisty fish—snook, sea trout, ladies, jacks, and even a gafftopsail catfish that put up a great fight before sliming us when we wrestled with him to remove the hook.  The video says it all.

This proud papa was thrilled when Florida Sportsman published a short article in the fall that I wrote about fishing the Tamiami Trail country around Everglades City.  It featured a couple of great photos of Matthew and yours truly with some nice snook.

Come summer back in Colorado my little sweetheart granddaughter Aly showed off her casting skills while catching some nice rainbows in a high mountain lake along with her Daddy Matthew.  The mile walk in and out to the lake was a great nature hike featuring beautiful wildflowers and a close encounter with a big buck mule deer.

Most Popular Posts And Published Articles

The continuing popularity of a series of five blog posts I penned in 2020 entitled “The Best Fishing Books Of All Time” is remarkable.  It garnered over 3,000 views this year and on Google searches for ‘best fishing books’ has become the most popular link on that subject, even outpacing Amazon’s sponsored ads.  Take that Zuckerberg! 

What is really gratifying is seeing that level of interest in angling books, from serious literature to technical how-to works, remains high in this age of videos and on-line reading. Here is a link of you want to take a look: https://hooknfly.com/2020/08/01/the-best-fishing-books-of-all-time/

Another surprise was that the most popular post overall was one entitled “Taking A Hike In The Everglades…And Stumbling On A Hidden Bass Lake.”  Focused mainly on hiking in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park near Everglades City, it garnered about 4,500 views.  Here is a link to the post: https://hooknfly.com/2022/04/16/taking-a-hike-in-the-everglades-and-stumbling-on-a-hidden-bass-lake/

As a result, I decided to branch out a bit and write about hiking around my winter home base as well as fishing.  My next effort, the first in a series about hiking the main trails in the park, appeared in December.  Click on the link to read the post: https://hooknfly.com/2022/11/30/hiking-the-fab-four-trails-of-the-fakahatachee-strand-preserve-state-park-1-the-west-main/

The most read angling posts, with almost 4,000 views, were again a quartet about finding and fishing for rare Rio Grande Cutthroat trout in southern Colorado. For my latest foray on the fab forks of the Conejos with my photographer Jody Bol, see: https://hooknfly.com/2022/08/15/conejos-river-capers/

The post on kayak and wade fishing around Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys again took the top spot for saltwater. See for the latest post on Bahia Honda: https://hooknfly.com/2019/06/08/bahia-honda-state-park-post-irma/

Now that I am back in Florida for the winter and spring, you can bet I will be getting out on the water and sharing new trips and tales.  I have already made plans for a two-week fishing trip to the Florida Keys in late April.

When the weather was uncooperative or the winds howling, I hunkered down and continued to write articles for American Fly Fishing and Florida Sportsman.  The article about fishing in South Park, Colorado, was titled “Mission Impossible:  Searching For Fish And Solitude.”

Fishing The Hidden Waters Of South Park: Under The Radar

It was the lead featured piece in the July issue of American Fly Fishing and focused on finding hidden and remote creeks in the famous valley near Denver, home of the South Platte River, Dream Stream, and other popular waters and lakes that sometimes feature combat fishing.  https://hooknfly.com/2022/07/21/south-park-under-the-radar/

Florida Sportsman ran two of my articles in 2022.  The first was a fun one in which I discussed the very controversial gar conversion therapy.  Under the heading “In Defense Of The Antediluvian Gar,”  I stood up for this hard-fighting, oft-underestimated fish while documenting the successful conversion of a tarpon aficionado to gar fishing in the Everglades.  https://hooknfly.com/2022/11/19/gar-conversion-therapy/

Bob Wayne Undergoing Gar Conversion Therapy

The second piece, noted above, recounted the variety of angling opportunities along the Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami. 

Most Rewarding Trips

One of my favorite streams close to home is a remote twenty mile stretch of Grape Creek between Westcliffe and Canon City, Colorado.  Over the past decade I have had many memorable trips into the canyon where the creek runs, chasing plentiful and hungry browns and rainbows.  But disaster struck a couple of years ago when two giant flash floods only a few weeks apart scoured the canyon and practically wiped out all insect life in the upper reaches.  Without food, the fish abandoned the stretches I frequented.  After a couple of fruitless trips, I decided to wait a couple of years to see if Grape Creek would recover.  Thankfully, it did, and I was rewarded with my biggest trout of the year—a 19-inch brown—during a July trip. 

How Now Brown Trout

A bonus was that some healthy foot-long rainbow trout had apparently migrated down from the tailwaters of DeWeese Reservoir and helped provide non-stop action. https://hooknfly.com/2022/08/05/grape-creek-comeback/

Another trip up the headwaters of the Conejos River high in the mountains of southern Colorado provided some unexpected and mostly pleasant surprises.  Exploring the five forks of the Conejos River is on my bucket list.  I have had terrific days on the Lake and Adams Fork chasing beautiful, rare Rio Grande Cutthroats. This year I had my eye on fishing the Middle and North Forks, both of which can be reached as they branch off the Upper Conejos River about two miles above Platoro Reservoir.  Being remote streams, I expected a plethora of feisty fish including cutthroats that I had found on the nearby Adams Fork.  But after pounding the lower reaches of each for an hour, I was beginning to have my doubts.  I decided to try one last pool on the Middle Fork that looked particularly inviting and struck a bonanza.  On my first cast I watched transfixed as a huge brown trout rose slowly from the depths and inhaled my fly.  Then it was off to the races, trying to run down the rascal who had managed to fly by me and head downstream into a brush pile.  Somehow I managed to extricate that big brownie and followed that miracle by catching his large mate on the very next cast.  

Given that result, I decided I’d better retrace my steps and go up higher on the North Fork. However, I only managed a few small browns on that stretch before it disappeared into a ravine above the valley. Needless to say, I was perplexed. Why so few fish on the Middle and North Forks, albeit big ones on the Middle Fork? The revelation would come as I fished back down on the Upper Conejos below the fork to the trailhead where my SUV was parked. Here on a mile stretch I caught a passel of brown trout, most over 15-inches. The answer?? As confirmed by a local angler at the general store in Platoro, the big fish migrate out of Platoro Reservoir into the Upper Conejos and grow fat and sassy eating all the little guys. Of course, now I must return in 2023 to confirm this theory!


The Scary And Amusing, The Sad And The Confusing

In 2022 I thankfully avoided any scary incidents with moose, mountain lions, sharks and the like that I have had in the past.  But the year’s most blood-curdling incident was self-inflicted, with an alligator playing the villain.  Normally the many gators I encounter during my trips into the Everglades backcountry bolt at the first sign of my kayak or Gheenoe.  Once in a great while a young gator will venture too close when I am catching lots of fish, attracted out of curiosity to all the jumping and splashing.  Usually smacking a paddle on the water sends him scurrying for cover.  Alligators that are aggressive down here tend to be ones fed by humans, mainly tourists.

My most memorable gator encounter for 2022 took place on a sunny day in March when I took my college buddy Morris on a trip along the historic Loop Road near Everglades City. I figured we would take a break from the serious day-long fishing trips into the backcountry and find some easier targets in the bass and cichlids in the canal along the gravel road as it winds its way through the swamp. The alligators were everywhere. Being teenage boys at heart, we couldn’t resist tossing one of the small fish we caught to a big gator lounging in the slough near a big culvert.

The fish bounced a few feet down the slope but didn’t make it to the water.  All of a sudden, the docile reptile came rocketing out of the water at warp speed to gobble down the fish.  His momentum carried him up the incline almost onto the road.  It must have been comical to watch two old coots scrambling back towards their SUV in utter terror, but thankfully no one was there to record the incident.  Lesson relearned:  DO NOT FEED THE GATORS!! 

The biggest bummer of the year followed in the wake of Hurricane Ian that struck southwest Florida in late September.  I had dutifully rigged my Gheenoe, a motorized canoe, under my house on Chokoloskee Island near Everglades City as advised by old salts down here.  Following that advice, my boat had survived in good condition a five-foot flood tide that swept over Chokoloskee during Hurricane Irma in 2017.  Unfortunately, either because I didn’t insert the bilge plug or the ropes anchoring the boat and trailer to the building  pillars were too tight to allow them to float, saltwater surged a couple of feet deep into the boat and destroyed the electrical system. 

When I returned to Florida in early November, I took the boat to my local marina in Naples and got the bad news.  A month and $5,000 later everything was put back in order, and fortunately the damage was mostly covered by my boat insurance.  The big relief was that the motor was undamaged.  Whew! 

In the category of confusing was an exploratory trip to find brook trout and maybe some cutthroats reputedly swimming in a remote creek in the Colorado high country south of Del Norte.  One of the best angling guidebooks for exploring secluded waters around my neck of the woods in Colorado is ­­­49 Trout Streams of Southern Colorado by Williams and McPhail.  They sang the praises of Torsido Creek, a tributary of La Jara Creek south of Del Norte, Colorado.  I had fished La Jara Creek below La Jara Reservoir a number of times with great success, so was anxious to explore the upper La Jara and Torsido Creek.  After a long and bone-jarring ride over a narrow, bumpy gravel road that hadn’t seen a grader for some time, I made it to the lake and drove to its upper reaches where La Jara Creek flows in.  Trouble was, the creek was next to invisible in the expansive meadow above the reservoir, and it wasn’t clear where it was joined by Torsido Creek.  To exacerbate matters, I had run off and left my detailed maps of the area in my travel trailer back in Del Norte and the GPS on my cell phone wasn’t working.  No worries I thought.  Torsido had to be out there somewhere.  But after wandering about for almost two hours, marching through muck, dodging a big bull, and clambering over a couple of barbwire fences in my waders, I flew the white flag and turned tail back to my SUV.  Fortunately, on the way back I had to cross upper La Jara Creek, and serendipitously where I did some trout were rising.  That was the start of an epic afternoon of catching not only some fat, beautiful brook trout, but also some muscular, truculent tiger trout that apparently are stocked in the reservoir and run up the creek to eat.  https://hooknfly.com/2022/10/24/taming-the-tigers-of-torsido-and-upper-la-jara-creek-near-del-norte-co/

Not until I got back to camp did I discover the confluence with Torsido Creek is hidden in the gap in a ridge about a quarter mile from where I stopped fishing that day.  Darn, guess I will have to schedule a return engagement in 2023!

Persistence Pays Off

Like many things in life, persistence pays off in angling.  Two years ago I experienced a particularly humbling experience at the hands of brook trout on the upper reaches of the Huerfano (Wear-fano) River in the wilds of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado.  Fishing in one of the most scenic valleys I’ve ever set foot in, I was sure this was going to be a banner day when in the first pool I came to I spied nice brook trout finning in the depths.  However, three hours and 20 expletives later, I flew the white flag.  I had scored nary a bite the whole time as the spawning brookies made clear amore was more important than eating.  With the air redolent of skunk, I slunk back to my SUV.  Now fast forward to the summer of 2022.  I decided to return to the scene of the skunking for a measure of revenge.  But this time things looked even worse when I hit the water after navigating the rough road to the Lily Lake trailhead.  It was mid-summer, and the brook trout weren’t spawning.  Indeed, none of the alluring pools seemed to hold any fish.  So after two hours of flailing the water, I started back to the SUV, tail between my legs.  Luckily, I had to cross a very narrow, but fast-flowing tributary of the Huerfano in the meadow to the west of the river.  As I did, I happened to see what appeared to be a rise at a bend below me in the creek.  What the heck, I thought, and threw my fly downstream.  It floated a few feet, then was sucked in by what turned out to be a chunky brook trout.  So that’s where the little devils were hiding.  That was the first of more than a dozen nice brookies from what I have dubbed the West Fork of the Huerfano.  You won’t see it named on a map, but believe me, it and the fish are there.  Indeed, persistence pays off.

And speaking of stick-to-it-of-ness, a case of avian persistence opened my eyes.  I am a confirmed amateur birdwatcher, especially at my mountain cabin in Colorado where a steady cavalcade of western tanagers, evening grosbeaks, hummingbirds, and many others at my birdfeeders provides a steady stream of pleasure.  But those bird feeders have also attracted pinon jays and Clark’s Nutcrackers, drawing me into a never-ending battle with these noisy, wily, and voracious, albeit handsome, birds.  Imagine their fright when I come storming out on the front porch hurling expletives till the Colorado sky turns even bluer.  I did some research on-line to see if there were any better strategies to deal with these smart, raucous marauders, and in the process learned that because of habitat loss, notably destruction of pinyon trees they rely on for food, and climate change, these iconic western birds are declining precipitously. 

Indeed, one report estimated the pinyon jays have declined 85% of the past 50 years and that there are only 700,000 left worldwide (versus 8 billion humans)! All of this made me realize I need to focus closer to home on saving the world. That will mean nurturing the pinyon trees already growing on my land and planting new ones. It will also mean biting my tongue when the raiders come to my bird feeders and dutifully hanging another suet cake when they take their leave. My thanks to them for their persistence and opening my eyes.

On The Horizon: Looking Forward to 2023

So what’s on the agenda for 2022? First and foremost is to get back down to Florida to get my saltwater chops back.  I arrived in Everglades City a couple of months ago, got the kayak and Gheenoe ready to go, and started executing that plan.  A 24-inch snook on my first yak outing led the fish parade not to mention a 33-inch leviathan out in my Gheenoe with buddy Steve Keeble in the New Year!

More stories and tall tales to come from the Everglades backcountry!  I also want to explore some of the remote brackish canals east of Naples, Florida, that are impossible to access except with a kayak.  Big snook are rumored to hide out there along with the gators! Fishing some remote islands in the Florida Keys is also on the agenda.

On the writing front, my article on fishing the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in the Everglades is scheduled for publication soon in an issue of Florida Sportsman to be followed by a piece on the top ten tackle, gear, and techniques tips for kayak anglers in the Everglades.  On the trout side, American Fly Fishing will carry an article this spring about my adventures this past summer on La Garita and Carnero Ceeks, two remote high-country streams in Colorado, to be followed later in the year by shorter pieces on upper La Jara and Tarryall Creeks, also in Colorado.

In the keep it under your hat category, I am also in initial negotiations with Kevin Kostner for a new TV series now that it looks as if he’s dropping out of “Yellowstone.” It will tentatively be called “Tales of a Zombie Fisherman” and will be based on my 2022 shenanigants on Halloween night when I went trick-or-treating with my favorite little witch Aly. Stay tuned!!

Of course, I will chase some trout with my sweetheart Aly and find Torsido Creek at long last.

Holiday Fun With My Little Sunshine!

Late December 2022

Just back in Florida from a fun holiday week in Colorado with my sweetheart granddaughter Aly, her Daddy, and Grandma. The week was a vertible movable feast of merrymaking. I arrived in Denver to a frigid temperature of -7 degrees, but warmed up immediately with a big hug from Aly at the airport. We were soon off to do some last minute shopping together followed by a wonderful Christmas celebration–what’s better than opening presents with a six-year old. Then we tackled some of her new Legos projects–with Grandpa relegated to a role of organizing the myriad pieces by color and she doing the construction work, hit three playgrounds in one day, spent a morning at an indoor pool, and played new games like Villain Monopoly and Exploding Kittens card game, both in which she crushed Grandpa, showing no mercy. A record snowstorm hit a few days later so we got to play in the white stuff with some sledding and building a snowman on the agenda followed by some real snow snow cones. On New Year’s Eve we rang in the new year with a tour of the best decorated holiday houses in the neighborhood and a stunning light show at a local venue. What a grand finale to a perfect stay.

I took the red eye back to Florida on New Year’s Day and immediately started the thawing process!

My best to all my friends and readers for 2023!

Season’s Greetings 2022

(Hope you enjoy the video slideshow at the end of the post.)

2022 started off with big snow in Denver which meant fun sledding and building a snowman with my little sweetheart granddaughter Aly and son Matthew.  It was a great relief to have Covid in the rearview mirror, having somehow done some fancy footwork to avoid it as did Aly and Grandma.  Sons Matthew and Ben weren’t so lucky, but they seem to have recovered okay. 

A week later I started my annual migration to the Sunshine State, taking the southern route through Texas and Louisiana.  One of my stops along the way was one of my favorite towns, New Iberia, and the Tabasco Factory on Avery Island where I sampled new flavors of Tabasco Sauce—buffalo and habanero– and gobbled down a new delectable, hot and spicy Tabasco-flavored Spam! Surviving that, I arrived in Florida a few days later just in time to be greeted by a tropical storm deluge, which would be a harbinger of things to come.  I settled in quickly and was soon out on the water in my kayak doing some long-overdue piscatorial research.  Results of these studies can be found on my blog at hooknfly.com. 

It wasn’t long before I was jumping on a plane back to Denver for Aly’s 6th birthday on Valentine’s Day.  What a celebration it was with her kindergarten buddies at a local indoor playground! In March I did a speech via Zoom at the annual Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute based in Denver that looked at the legal aspects of sustainable development.  I followed that up with some less sober-sided Zoom presentations on fishing to angling clubs in Colorado and Florida.    

The highlight of March was a visit to Florida by Aly, Daddy Matthew, and Grandma Jan.   We were in the water every day, and Aly learned to swim submerged across the pool while holding her breath.  She’s a little water bug.  We had a fun day beachcombing for shells on a remote island in the Gulf and chasing fiddler crabs in the sand near my condo at night.  Aly got to “drive” my little motorboat one day up a local tidal creek near Everglades City while sitting on my lap, and on another Matthew and I took a father-son fishing trip that ended up being grist for an article in Florida Sportsman magazine.  Spring wouldn’t be complete in Florida without visits from good friends who needed to thaw out like Steve Keeble, Charlie Cain, Jim Cannon, and my college roomie Morris Martin.  We had a blast catching snook and sea trout and even tangled with a few sharks and a gator!  Proving an old dog can learn new tricks, I tried my hand at fishing for gar, an antediluvian creature that has been around since the time of dinosaurs.  It was a riot trying to catch the truculent devils, but I succeeded as memorialized later in the year in another article in Florida Sportsman. 

When the saltwater mosquitos and no-see-ums started to feast on my septuagenarian body in May, I knew it was time to head back to Colorado.  I got back just in time to attend Aly’s kindergarten graduation and field day. What fun. Those kids have a lot of energy!! The summer weather in the Rockies was spectacular, with a lot of hiking, exploring, and fishing on the agenda.  A highlight was a trip with my Florida fishing buddy Robert Wayne, Esq. into the rugged high country of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to fish for rare, native Rio Grande Cutthroat trout. 

Luckily my mountain cabin retreat is only a few hours’ drive from Denver so I got to have a lot of good family time there.  One weekend, thanks to Matthew, we took an insider’s tour of the Colorado Rockies ballpark, Coors Field, led by one of his co-workers.  Of course, lots more swimming was in order, and Aly was soon snorkeling like a pro.  On other days we chased crawdaddies in the South Platte River.  She also persuaded me to visit a shopping mall for the first time in years, where she led me on an outing that included Claire’s (a girls’ jewelry store), the Legos shop, and her favorite candy store, Lolli and Pops.   

The other big news was Aly got a new kitty, her first pet, that she named Figaro after the cat in Pinocchio. He’s a sweet big young cat that she adores. Before long she lost that first tooth! Later it was great to see my son Ben and his wife Sara who visited us in Denver. Ben continues to work in law enforcement in Las Vegas, while Sara builds her successful marriage and family counseling practice there.

Starting in July, I hosted a cavalcade of guests at my cabin. It was great to see my cousins the Schroeders who I grew up with back in Kansas—Roy, Judy, and Gib. Gib is the last farmer in the Duerksen/Schroeder clan. Next came fishing buddies from back east, Steve Spanger and Paul Hughes, who had audacity to outfish me. I took them to chase trout on some hidden waters in nearby South Park that I had written about in an article that was the lead feature in the summer issue of American Fly Fishing.

The big event in early August was Aly starting first grade at Wildcat Mountain Elementary near her house. She loves school. Math and art are her favorite subjects, and she’s quite a little gymnast already!

Later in August Mother Nature reminded me who is boss with an epic flood.  My valley outside Salida sustained an 8-inch deluge in a few hours that took Little Cochetopa Creek from a couple of feet deep to over six feet by morning (The area usually gets about 12-16 inches of precipitation a year!).  Local roads were washed out, and several neighbors had their driveway culverts blown away.  Fortunately, no one was hurt, and my road and culverts survived, but only just barely.  I got lots of exercise along with my neighbor Charlie Cain the next few days clearing out trees and other debris that had been washed about every which way. According to the U.S. Forest Service, there was no historic record of any flood being anywhere near as devastating as this one.

Aly started first grade in August, and then things settled down by Labor Day and fall kicked off with a visit from Aly and family. She played her usual role as head marshmallow roaster every night. My neighbors, Charlie and Courtney Cain bought a beautiful ranch nearby, and we had a lively afternoon feeding their llamas, horses, and barnyard cats then fishing the beautiful pristine trout stream that runs through their spread.

Later in September I traveled with my college buddy Morris to Kansas City for a fraternity reunion. We had a blast of a weekend reminiscing with old friends and spending time with Joe Aleshire and Lance Miller, our roommates back in the day. While there, Lance and I took a side trip to the nearby Truman Presidential Museum which I can highly recommend.

I got back to my cabin just in time to witness on TV the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ian in southwest Florida.  Luckily my condo survived the five-foot flood surge that swept over the Everglades City area, although my boat had some damage.  Aly got me going again over Halloween.  It was a hoot.  She lobbied me to wear a costume for the first time in many years.  I went trick or treating with her as a Zombie fisherman. 

A week later I was on the road back to Florida, just barely dodging a couple of snowstorms in the high country.  On the way I stopped to see some high school friends in my hometown of Buhler, Kansas, and visited my Dad’s old renovated 1934 wheat truck at the Mennonite Farm Museum in Goessel.  I got to do some fishing in the mountains of Georgia and then stopped in to see another college roommate in Daytona Beach, Joe Perez and his lovely lady, Eleanor.

I’m closing out 2022 enjoying the warmth and easy living in the Everglades. It was 30 days straight wearing sandals, short-sleeved shirts, and shorts before a brutal cold front just dipped the nighttime temperatures into the 60s! As the old saying goes, down here we salt margaritas, not sidewalks! I’m looking forward to Christmas with Aly in Denver, steeling myself for the minus 3 degrees predicted for my arrival this week!

My best to you and yours for the holidays and a wonderful 2023!!

Changes In Attitudes, Changes In Altitudes…To Save The Pinyon Jay and Clark’s Nutcracker

October 2022

It’s those changes in latitudes,

changes in attitudes nothing remains quite the same.

With all of our running and all of our cunning,

If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.

Jimmy Buffett

For my earlier article on pinyon trees and pine nuts, see: https://hooknfly.com/2015/10/18/pinon-pine-nuts-pulse-of-the-land-2/

I’ve been a confirmed amateur birdwatcher and avian connoisseur since the tender age of 10.  In 1950s Dad would take my sister and me birdwatching after church as Mom prepared dinner (dinner was the big noon meal on Sundays).  My little hometown of Buhler, located on the Great Plains in south central Kansas, is smack dab in the middle of the huge Central Flyway, a major bird migration route.  So in addition to local favorites like meadowlarks, red-headed woodpeckers, and scissor-tailed flycatchers, we also got to see some beautiful and interesting itinerants like goldfinches, cedar waxwings, and rose-breasted grosbeaks as well as lots of ducks.  I got my got first little bird book then and soon thereafter as a gift, membership in the Audubon Society accompanied by a weighty tome, the Audubon Guide to North American Birds.  It is still a prized possession that brings with it many good memories.

My First Bird Book

I’ve continue my ardor for birds six decades later at my cabin in the Colorado high country near Salida where I have been enjoying feeding birds, providing nesting boxes, and watching my winged friends up close—gorgeous western tanagers, bluebirds, hairy and downy woodpeckers, evening and black-headed grosbeaks as well as little buddies like mountain chickadees, nuthatches, and towhees.  Then there are the golden eagles soaring high above. Here are some of my favorites, close up.

But as my human friends know, I have been having a running battle for several years with pinyon jays and Clark’s nutcrackers, large birds that are members of the jay/crow family, who raid the suet and sunflower seed feeders in large bands, chasing away smaller birds amidst a raucous sideshow on my front porch.  When I’m inside and spot the gluttons through my big front windows, I creep stealthily to the front door, then in a flurry throw it open and run screaming onto the porch like a madman, scattering the noisy robbers.  Here is an array of my antagonists!

Of course, they are usually back before too long.  They have incredible eyesight and can see through the big front windows as I slink to the front door. To the amusement of occasional visitors who have witnessed the skirmish, it’s actually become something of a sporting exercise routine for this retired old codger.

But recently I have experienced a major change in attitude about these critters.  I happened to read an article about the pinon jays documenting how it is now being listed as a threatened species and the Clark’s nutcracker (first observed and named by William Clark of Lewis and Clark expedition fame in 1805 along the Salmon River in Washington) is experiencing a precipitous decline in parts of its range, likely due to climate change reducing the forests they rely on.  I was saddened to learn there are only about 700,000 pinyon jays left in the entire world, an astounding decline of 85% over the past 50 years.  For comparison’s sake, Mother Earth is inhabited by almost 8 billion humans!  Both birds call the high-country home year-round, and they are smart and inquisitive, befitting their membership in the jay/crow family. 

They are also noisy and rambunctious, with shrill rasping calls that sound like “kraal, kraal.”  I have named my favorite local Clark’s nutcracker Griswold in keeping with his boisterous antics. 

In my neck of the woods, they rely heavily on pinyon trees for sustenance—pine nuts. And in turn, the pinyon trees rely on the jays and nutcrackers to help reseed and spread the forest. Both have big spear-like beaks to probe cones to get to the seeds, and then crack them to get to the nuts. The Clark’s have a big pouch under their tongues that can hold up to 150 seeds.

Chow Time–A Pinyon Cone With A Seed Remaining

Both the jays and nutcrackers bury the seeds for food during the harsh high-altitude winters.  One study in New Mexico estimated that a flock of pinyon jays there cached 4.5 million seeds in a year!  Other research has shown that they can remember where they buried the seeds for six months and more.  But when they forget, the seeds can sprout, rejuvenating and spreading the forest reach

The pinyon tree is the foundation species in this ecosystem—everything is built upon it. 

Pinyon-Juniper Forest Above My Cabin

In addition to the pinyon jays and Clark’s nutcrackers, rodents feast on the seeds and are in turn food for the coyotes, owls, hawks….you get the picture. The birds and rodents help spread the seeds far and wide. Because of the dry climate and generally poor soil in this region, the trees produce seeds only once every four to ten years on a rotating basis so that about one in five has cones every year.

Incredibly, in the 1950s and 60s, government ecologists declared pinyon and juniper trees as invasive species that were destroying grassland and wasting precious water.  And more grasslands would mean more cattle, more money for local economies, etc.  They gave the green light to uprooting millions of acres of the trees by chaining—a process that ripped the trees out along with just about anything else in the vicinity.  The massacre was actually recounted in a documentary narrated by Robert Redford, Broken Treaty At Battle Mountain.  Not surprisingly, the wholesale destruction of these foundation species was an ecological disaster for all the myriad species that relied on them.  Here are just a few examples of the devastation

Today climate change, spraying of pesticides, and residential development are taking their toll on pinyon and juniper stands.  In some states like Nevada and Utah, federal and state agencies continue to rip out pinyon and juniper forests to promote grasslands, while in others there is an effort to protect areas used by pinyon jays and Clark’s nutcrackers. Environmental groups are turning up the heat for conservation measures.  Hopefully it isn’t too late. 

That’s where my change in attitude comes in.  Rather than clashing with the pinyon jays and nutcrackers in the daily battle of the bird feeders, I will welcome them.  Indeed, I will add a few more feeders, hoping the bears don’t notice.  I will make sure the pinyon and nutcracker nesting/roosting areas on my land that can harbor 15-50 birds are left undisturbed.  In periods of drought, becoming more prevalent in my neck of Colorado, I will dutifully lug pails of water to the forest of pinyon and juniper trees that cover the slopes around the cabin if I see some browning on the top branches, hoping it will help see them through tough times. 

And that leads me to my change in altitude.  For many years in my professional career as a land use attorney and planner consulting with local governments around the United States I flew back and forth across the United States.  One air route from Denver to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and southern California that I took often flew high above my cabin a hundred miles southwest of Denver, but I could still just barely see my town of Salida and homestead a few miles away as I jetted over.  It was a comforting thought to be looking down on that peaceful piece of territory.  Today as I sip wine on the porch at the end of the day, I can see the multiple contrails above me from planes flying the same route, the sign of our ever busy society.

Up,Up And Away–My Former Life Painted In Contrails.

On those trips I worked with communities to improve their development codes, among other things to protect wildlife habitat, sensitive ecosystems, and historic buildings. My colleagues and I preached the gospel of sustainable development and helped write and update regulations and incentives to promote solar and wind energy, affordable housing, water conservation, and the like. Those were exciting and fulfilling days. We were trying to do our small part to save the world.

But as time passes, I see the need to focus closer in my own backyard and change my altitude from a bird’s eye view of saving the world to one closer to ground level, to the 35 acres I call home.  When I first bought my place some 25 years ago, I planted over 100 pinyon and juniper trees that were distributed free at the time as part of a government program.  It was back-breaking work digging holes for them in this rocky landscape.  But because this is a harsh, high-desert climate, despite occasional watering and fertilizing over the years, today only about 10 survive.  After 25 years, those survivors range in height from just 4-6 feet! I’m proud of each and every one of them!

Now I will focus more attention on them, thinking of future generations of pinyon jays and nutcracker that will feast on their bounty as my granddaughter Aly, all grown up by then, watches from the porch. I’ll do some clipping to give them some growing room when rabbit brush and other bushes crowd too close. If the drought continues, they’ll get more periodic watering.

When I see a mature pinon tree close to the cabin starting to bear cones, I’ll give it an extra drink of water. I will remove weeds, bushes, and tinder from under its bows to help it survive a wildfire. Those mature 25-foot tall trees can be pushing 200 years old or more. The granddaddy pinyon growing right next to the porch where the small birds like to perch and eat sunflower seeds is a giant, probably over 300 years old. I choke up a bit when I think that this grand tree, now in my care, was growing before the American Revolution and that the native Ute Indians probably harvested seeds from it to make the rich, nourishing gruel that saw them through the winters long ago. And here it is today, healthy and providing sustenance and shelter to the pinyon jays, Clark’s nutcrackers, and other birds. I have the obligation to make sure it continues to thrive. Healthy pinyon trees can last a thousand years!

And occasionally I may even attend local public hearings on the type of sprawling rural subdivision the county can’t seem to just say “NO” to, hoping that at least they will require the development to preserve as much of the pinyon and juniper forest as possible and maybe even plant trees to compensate for any removed. Many progressive jurisdictions across the nation already do that.

And of course, when the raiders come to my bird feeders, a noisy “kraal, kraal” chorus announcing their arrival, I’ll bite my tongue and dutifully deposit another suet cake when they take their leave.

Taking A Hike In The Everglades…And Stumbling On A Hidden Bass Lake

April 2022

I’ve been hard at it the past two days writing a fishing article for Florida Sportsman and decided to come up for some fresh air. It’s sunny outside so looks like a good day for a little hike in the Everglades near Everglades City. I’ve had my eye on nearby Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, the largest in Florida and one that protects thousands of acres of uplands that are prime habitat for the endangered Florida panther. But who hikes in the Everglades??

When I first moved to the Glades about seven years ago, I had no idea you could hike anywhere around here–just too darn wet I thought. In the summer torrential rains cover the Everglades with several feet of water. But I have since learned that during the winter and spring months, the Glades get very little rain. That’s when the marshes dry up, and saltwater from the Gulf pushes far inland via tidal creeks. When I first hiked a trail in the Fakahatchee Strand several years ago, I was struck how similar the landscape was to the prairies of Kansas where I grew up–wildflowers among the tall grass, grasshoppers everywhere, birds hiding in the cover, and hawks soaring overhead. So off I go!!

I arrive at the unmarked trailhead around 9 a.m. as the sun starts to heat things up. High 80s is the forecast. I don my kayak water boots knowing that it’s likely I will encounter pools of water and spongy ground here and there. Then it’s into the wilds. I have the whole place to myself!

Everglades Prairie

The terrain is dry, spongy and a little wet in places, but eminently navigable.

I don’t have to walk far before a giant grasshopper takes flight a few feet in front of me. I scurry after the big guy and using my patented grasshopper hunting technique (one hand in front of the hopper to distract him, then snatch him from behind with my other hand) am soon admiring his outrageously beautiful, distinctive colors. He’s over two inches long, an Eastern Lubber Grasshopper.

As I look him over more closely, the hopper starts to foam. I’ll later read that this dark-colored secretion, resembling tobacco juice, is noxious to birds, not to mention odious to humans. Such is the life of a big-game hunter!

A bit later another grasshoppers whirs away from me, but with my quick and nimble septuagenarian moves, I corner him. Turns out it’s a juvenile Easter Lubber Grasshopper who is sporting different, but equally impressive colors.

Juvenile Eastern Lubber Grasshopper

I also start to notice the petite wildflowers hiding among the tall grass and reeds. I admire the delicate pink Rose of Plymouth, a salt-tolerant marsh flower that is threatened or endangered in some parts of the U.S.

Rose of Plymouth Wildflower

Then there is the aptly named Sweetscent–an herb with small flowers and a pleasant camphor-like aroma. It’s another wetland flower, one that is often used in dried flower arrangements.

Sweetscent Herb And Flower

A few minutes later a giant Marsh Marigold catches my eye, another salt-water tolerant perennial plant that sports its big flowers on six-foot vines.

Marsh Marigold

The dry, spongy ground suddenly dips into a little creek that appears to be flowing somewhere, so I follow it. I crash through a tangle of brush, reeds, and tall grass and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a hidden crystal-clear lake that just happens to have some fish finning in the shallows. An angler’s dream.

Hidden Lake

Another oddity of the lower Everglades just north of Everglades City where saltwater normally rules, is the existence of a number of freshwater lakes like this one. The crust below the marsh in many areas is limestone, and in some places freshwater springs have created these lakes that harbor freshwater fish like Largemouth Bass, Long-nose Gar, and Bluegill. In others, the lakes are the result of mining limestone gravel for highways in the area like the Tamiami Trail and Alligator Alley (Interstate 75).

I wade into the clear, cool water and immediately spook a big largemouth bass then a school of smaller fish–maybe bluegill or Mayan Cichlids, a freshwater invader from South America.

Angler’s Dream

Suddenly something erupts in the cove, a big gar performing some acrobatics while chasing prey. I start to see gar spawning on the edge of the limestone shelf along the shoreline.

Feeding Gar
Spawning Long-Nose Gar

It’s almost noon now, and the sun is beating down hard. After ogling the fish and scenery between bites on an apple, I begin to saunter back to my SUV. On the way, I come across a stand of Bald Cypress.

Bald Cypress Sporting New Needles

Being follicly-challenged, I have a special affinity for this odd tree. It is what the botanists call a “deciduous conifer.” It’s unique–the only conifer to shed its lacy needles every fall, becoming “bald” for the winter, then regrowing them in the spring. Oh that I be so lucky! Bald Cypress flourish in marshy areas, its wood highly valued for water resistance.

I next stumble across the only sign someone has been here before me–a small flip-flop sandal. I wonder what the story is behind that? Who left it? Why only one?

The Flip-Flop Mystery

In my head, I also start to hatch my fishing trip for tomorrow. I’ll be back early in my kayak to see if I can score a rare Everglades fishing freshwater slam–catch a bass, gar, and bluegill in a single day.

Deep In Thought

Then it hits me. Maybe I can start a new fishing fad and organization–call it BassGar! Could be a huge dollar deal!! I start dreaming about big fishing tournaments where the kayaks are plastered with sponsors’ ads and the contestants are wearing jumpsuits dressed up with emblems of their wealthy corporate patrons and backers. Just like Nascar! I can almost hear the boys in the yaks yelling “booyah” when they hook a big one.

But just then I catch sight of my favorite Everglades bird, the graceful swallow-tail kite. He soars overhead surveying the scene.

The Graceful Swallow-Tail Kite

As I admire his elegance, my nutty BassGar scheme quickly fades away. Who could possibly want to disturb this remarkable country, this solitude? We need to protect more, not fewer, of these special places! A walk in the wilds for everyone would do this country a world of good right now.